Amazon’s star-studded anthology series is so gentle, pleasant and inoffensive it ceases to resemble actual relationships.
No one can accuse Modern Love of pulling a fast one on viewers. it’s almost exactly what one would picture when told Amazon has a new anthology series based on a popular New York Times column and guided by Begin Again writer-director John Carney. it’s sweet, wonderfully musical, and populated by scores of attractive people. It’s just a shame Modern Love feels so…sanitized.
To focus on the positives for a moment, Carney — as he did in Again — has a great feel for New York City. While not quite as energetic a picture of the Big Apple as he presented in that earlier work, he still gets the strange experience that is life in the City. Modern Love frequently explores the ways in which city life, and NYC life in particular, can feel so expansive that it’s both overwhelming and hemmed in. Whatever spikiness each episode has is usually borne of the uneasy dichotomy between infinite options and limited choices.
Each episode also features at least one true moment of powerful heartstring-plucking. Projects like this are, by their nature, manipulative. They exist to play your emotions like a fiddle. However, Carney and his co-writers (including Sharon Horgan, Dan Savage, and Audrey Wells) deftly avoid that feeling of obvious manipulation. Even when the show goes for the most obvious moments of emotionality — a delivery room scene, for instance — it delivers the feels effectively and devoid of schmaltz.
Lastly, no anthology could ask for a better cast. Even in the weaker episodes the talent on the screen is undeniable. With each episode frequently boiling down to being one or two-handers, everyone needs to be on their A-game to sell it, and there is not a bum performance in the bunch.
Alas, it’s not all good news.
Modern Love almost uniformly shies away from the true pain that can come with opening yourself up to possibility. In the season’s trickiest episode, the Emmy Rossum-directed Julia Garner and Shea Whigham starring “So He Looked Like Dad. It Was Just Dinner, Right?” things seem to be heading in for some pretty thorny subject matter including possible sexual harassment amongst co-workers, the desire for sex that remains even after many stop seeing you as a sexual being because of age, the impact of parental death early in a child’s life, and so on. However, in practice, these topics end up treated like a hot stove: the episode barely touches it before handwaving it away for brighter, simpler conclusions. As a result, it ends up leaving the viewer feeling almost queasy. Surely, they didn’t intend to be so facile with such deep topics. Did they?
Sometimes, Modern Love raises issues only to ignore them in the final product. In the finale, “The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap,” Margot (Jane Alexander) wrestles with her second time being widowed, this time by late in life spouse Kenji (James Saito). In the early running, it’s probably the series most closely observed episode, unfolding with a kind of hushed but pervasive grief. However, with about 15 minutes left, the tone is derailed to “check in” on the lives of the people who starred in the other seven episodes. What’s worse is most of those check-ins do little to advance those people’s stories. Only a brief flashback between Maggie (Cristin Milioti) and Guzmin (Laurentiu Possa) from the first episode “When the Doorman Is Your Main Man” provides any kind of emotionally worthwhile content.
While complaining about the depiction of mental health in pop culture can sometimes feel akin to beating a dead horse, “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am” nonetheless compels one to do so. From an experiential perspective, the episode is surprisingly strong. Lexi (Anne Hathaway) is an overachiever who has spent her entire adult life managing her bipolar disorder by, largely, taking her meds and hiding it from the world. You can’t say she has left it untreated, but she’s not exactly addressing it either. The way the show depicts the jarring shifts from the bright “life as a musical” manic episodes to the desaturated sluggish depressive episodes feels remarkably honest and accurate. Hathaway captures what it’s like living through both very well too.
Modern Love almost uniformly shies away from the true pain that can come with opening yourself up to possibility.
But when it comes to accuracy, the episode stumbles quite a bit. Lexi experiences multiple depressive and manic episodes over the course of just a few days; in reality, even the most rapid cycling of bipolar disorder would not feature two full cycles in such close proximity. Normally, one might conclude that it just feels that quick to the protagonist but during that portion of “Take” the days passed are clearly specified. It’s a decision that paradoxically makes bipolar disorder seem both more intense because of its instability, and easier to ride out because its episodes seem so brief.
It would be disingenuous to say that Modern Love isn’t worth a watch. However, it would also be disingenuous not to acknowledge it has some significant problems. Perhaps that’s the show’s biggest feat: it may present a sanitized version of love, but the experience of watching it is very close to the push and pull of making love last.
Modern Love ties the knot on Amazon Prime Video October 18.